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We Are Doing Something Extraordinary

Jenny Reeder
12/04/20 | 5 min read
Who were these ladies? I had heard their names before, but I was not familiar with their stories. Their words intrigued me, as did their organization, the Relief Society.

I first heard the women’s voices whispering to me from the pages of an old minute book. “We are going to do something extraordinary,” said one.1 Another said, “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction, that we may all sit down in heaven together.”2 A third recorded, “the spirit of the Lord like a purifying stream, refreshed every heart.”3 The words sunk deep into my wandering soul.

I was, indeed, wandering. I had finished my bachelor’s degree at BYU in English teaching, but student teaching did not pique my interest. I worked for a year at a job I had no desire to continue, and a kind bishop suggested I apply to graduate school, maybe a human communication program in Arizona. “Sure!” I thought. I needed a change, and I was unsure of my direction. I went south.

The hot sun, dry air, challenging academic program, and new friends were invigorating, yet temporary. I did not feel that familiar foundation of home. I wanted a firm sense of belonging, a clear purpose, and a path, an anchor. I continued to wander.

But then I found a temporary position as a research assistant at BYU, where I found the ladies of the Nauvoo Relief Society: Emma Smith adeptly presided over the organization, encouraging the women to do extraordinary things. Lucy Mack Smith, Emma’s mother-in-law, cherished the companionship of the women and became certain that their friendship could expand and be “coupled with eternal glory” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:2). And Eliza R. Snow’s description of one meeting poured into my parched soul and gave me pause.

Who were these ladies? I had heard their names before, but I was not familiar with their stories. Their words intrigued me, as did their organization, the Relief Society. One day, while poring over their records, I discovered that Joseph Smith said the Church was not fully restored until the women were organized after the pattern of the priesthood and heaven in Relief Society. [4] The Relief Society is legit! That made me even more excited to read about these women.

As I dove into my research, I discovered a whole circle of women, extending well beyond Nauvoo, who certainly did “extraordinary things”:

They performed temple ordinances and realized their eternal identities, taking their rightful places as queens and priestesses in an eternal world. They researched their family histories and carefully connected relatives who had died.

They were the first women in the United States to vote from Utah Territory in 1870. They were involved in national suffrage movements and worked with Susan B. Anthony.

They spoke in public meetings and wrote convincing editorials. They knew scripture and doctrine and taught each other. They defended religious freedoms. They knew the United States Constitution.

They started a newspaper, the Woman’s Exponent, which was written, edited, and published by women. The newspaper contained correspondence with other women’s organizations across the country and published reports from local Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary organizations.

They opened women’s cooperative stores, where they manufactured merchandise and participated in local commerce. They built their own Relief Society halls, often with a store on the bottom level and meeting rooms upstairs.

They were among the first women to go to medical school. They then came back to Utah and set up nursing and midwifery classes, inviting one woman from each settlement to come and learn, and then go back and serve.

They started a silk manufacturing program where they grew mulberry trees to feed silkworms and produce silk, a fine fabric for frontier settlements.

They traveled by horseback, carriage, wagon, train, and boat to and from and around the Utah Territory, the United States, and even Europe and the Middle East to learn, proselytize, and return with widened eyes and experience.

These were my ladies, sisters I could connect with despite being born hundreds of years apart. They were politically savvy, civically active, educated, progressive, and assertive. Some struggled with mental illness and depression. Some were single and others had large families, while still others struggled with infertility or divorce. Some were fluent speakers and impressively literate, while others struggled to put together a coherent sentence. But they were all committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to building the kingdom of God.

These ladies became my home, my mission, my purpose. I wanted to find them and understand them, to comb through their words and understand their lives, their dreams, their hopes. In learning of their lives, their beliefs, their achievements, and their losses, I realized we shared common experiences and hopes, even in different centuries.

Armed with purpose, I went on to graduate school to learn the historian’s craft, to understand the historical context and the world around my ladies. I learned to find them in ways beyond their words—in the things they made with their hands and the relationships they developed with each other and with Jesus Christ. Little did I know, my ladies would speak back to my wandering soul.

When I worried about funding for school and life in an expensive location, they comforted me and helped me think of ways I, too, could use my resources and provide for myself.

When I broke up with the man I thought I was going to marry, they reminded me that not all relationships endure, that agency is a powerful gift, and that I could still hope for and believe in eternal marriage.

When I was called to be a Relief Society president in a very large family ward in northern Virginia, and later in an inner city ward in Utah, they stood next to me, helping me find able counselors and teaching me to expand my heart and my ability to love and serve, just as they had done.

When I was diagnosed with leukemia while writing my dissertation, I realized we shared feebleness and physical imperfections; they whispered to me of my mortality and immortality. They sat with me during those long nights in the hospital, and they helped me find creative ways to deal with my bald head. They continued to be with me when my leukemia recurred four times and when I came near death with two bone marrow transplants.

They were my heavenly host. Together we did extraordinary things, and we cherished one another, and the Spirit filled our parched souls with refreshing water.

As my ears hear their whispers, my eyes open to see my ladies, all the women who have taught me, nurtured me, and loved me, all around me. I love the reciprocity of feeding each other—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I love that when I provide relief to my people, I find relief in my soul. I have gathered the teachings of Eliza R. Snow and other courageous women as I have studied them because I hope that others will have the same connection to them as I do. Together, our souls are anchored to our shared faith in Jesus Christ—another thing that I’ve learned from my ladies.

And together, we are doing something extraordinary.

Notes

  1. Emma Smith, in Relief Society Minute Book, Mar. 17, 1842, 12, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
  2. Lucy Mack Smith, in Relief Society Minute Book, Mar. 24, 1842, 19.
  3. Eliza R. Snow, in Relief Society Minute Book, Apr. 19, 1842, 33.

Jenny Reeder
Jenny Reeder is the nineteenth-century women’s history specialist in the Church History Department. She has a PhD in American history, served a mission in Italy-Catania, and is the best aunt to thirteen nieces and nephews.
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